Last Sunday Cork played Waterford in their first Allianz Hurling League game of 2020, a tight match in trying conditions which Waterford won by a point.
Then the complications began. Cork started Niall O’Leary, Robert Downey, Tim O’Mahony, Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Shane Kingston against Waterford, while Michael O’Halloran, David Lowney, Robbie O’Flynn, Brian Turnbull and Billy Hennessy were subs, though only O’Flynn saw action last Sunday.
All those players were on the field at various times for UCC in the Fitzgibbon Cup quarter-final on Wednesday against UCD - except Tim O’Mahony, who lined out for Mary Immaculate College against LIT in the same competition.
That meant the majority of the Cork side were in action on a Sunday afternoon against Waterford, on Wednesday for their colleges, and, depending on selection, this Saturday night again, facing Tipperary in the League.
Other counties are in a similar position, and the interactions can be eye-catching: Tipperary’s Paddy Cadell, who impressed in their League opener last weekend against Limerick, came on for Billy Hennessy last Wednesday for UCC.
In the same game another Tipperary player, Mark Kehoe, was replaced by Cork’s Michael O’Halloran, two more players who could cross paths in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Shane Kingston was replaced by Neil Montgomery of Waterford: they shared Walsh Park last Sunday.
And so on.
Few counties have as many players involved as Cork, however, and the tight turnaround this week is a fair test of those involved and a clear indication of what exactly fixture congestion means to those most affected by it.
To start, Cork didn’t do their recovery until Monday evening, when there was a group recovery session planned. UCC also had training planned for Monday evening but by agreement, any of the Cork players who had seen more than 45 minutes’ action on Sunday didn’t train with the college.
Those Cork/UCC players who didn’t see action against Waterford trained that night with UCC (the presumption is that co-operation between Cork and UCC is good, given brothers Kieran and Tom Kingston are the respective managers).
Cork then had a training session on Tuesday night but the UCC contingent didn’t train with the county side. The student hurlers reported a clean bill of health ahead of the Fitzgibbon clash and were free to come to attend the Tuesday training session with Cork.
The fact that the county hurlers had access to the main Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch for 45 minutes ahead of tonight’s NHL game meant most of them were there, if only to have a puck-around and get accustomed to the surface in order to work out what boots to wear on the weekend. (They then dinner with their teammates. Experienced observers point out that such optional training sessions for intercounty sides are invariably well attended by student panelists when a hot meal is in the offing, for obvious reasons.)
On Wednesday, UCC beat UCD 1-20 to 2-12. Management were happy that the players came through unscathed and the fact that the win was more emphatic than the scoreline suggests - UCD got a goal deep in stoppage time - meant UCC were able to empty their bench.
Kingston, Hennessy and Fitzgibbon were withdrawn before the end, while O’Halloran and Turnbull got some game time.
On the other hand, while Tim O’Mahony’s Mary I side got past UL, that game went to extra time - a tall order in an already busy week.
Cork trained on Thursday night as well but the UCC players didn’t participate with Saturday night’s game looming closer and closer; nothing was scheduled for Friday night.
Most management teams, though obviously nervous of players picking up injuries in colleges games, are more concerned by the psychological pressure involved - players always prefer games to training but being ready for a challenge three times in six days can be testing for players, particularly the younger players in an intercounty squad involved with a colleges team.
In the Cork case last week, for instance, the majority of the senior panel are students - returning to action with UCC on Monday meant switching team-mates, playing styles and perhaps even positions for the UCD game on Wednesday: UCC management was solely focused on the Fitzgibbon Cup clash, obviously, rather than the Waterford and Tipperary clashes Cork faced at either end of the week.
For all the possible complications, intercounty management teams also recognise the value of the colleges competition - with the U20 championship coming later in the year it’s a shop window for promising players on the fringes of a senior panel, particularly those who haven’t come through the development squad system.
It’s also an opportunity to play high-quality hurling in a less stressful environment, though that’s not to say that it’s a competition without its pressures, given the number of players now on scholarships.
The fact that the National Hurling League takes a break the weekend after this (February 8/9) is likely to exercise minds even further when it comes to the fixture crush this past week; counties with sizable Fitzgibbon commitments will wonder why this weekend’s games couldn't have been shifted to that ‘free’ weekend.
The run of games this week was more of an issue for Cork than other counties, though another county is sure to find itself in a similar situation sooner rather than later. The catch-22 of senior intercounty action is that the cohort of players best able to fit in recovery sessions, extra gym work and training weekend are those with the fewest commitments: students, in other words.
On the other hand, this is also the cohort most at risk of overload and burn-out. Witness last week.